It's Time To Leave WhatsApp

We should all take our opportunity to join sustainable social media

In the first week of February 2021 I’m deleting WhatsApp — and you should too.

The failed coup at the Capitol on January 6 — planned and “incubated” on Facebook — is the last straw but shouldn’t distract us from Facebook’s announcement about their message application that same week.

Facebook has played us for WhatsApp suckers. They told us they’d keep our personal WhatsApp information separate from Instagram and Facebook. They lied. Now that we’ve built up our groups and networks, they’ve announced that they will combine all of our WhatsApp information into their Big Brother Facebook database.

We need to work with organizations that are transparent with us, not lying to us. We need to belong to groups that working for our good — not cynically profiting from neo-Nazis, anti-vaxxers and others who seek to destroy us.

This month, it means joining Signal and leaving WhatsApp. Signal is secure, simple and an independent nonprofit, so has no ads, is not tied to any major tech companies and won’t be bought by one. (I’m not affiliated with them in any way whatsoever.)

* Get the Signal app here for mobile or desktop
* Set up groups exactly like WhatsApp and add members or just post links to the Signal groups in your old groups

Group videos max out at 5, and group voice calls max out at 8 at the moment with Signal aiming to increase both limits.

Online tools and social media in particular have changed rapidly over the past decade. Despite our hopes that the Internet could lead us to a better world, it’s turned out that bad actors — bullies, fascists, trolls — use online tools quite as well as those hoping for a better future. Change and influence has outpaced government regulation and the Silicon Six who control billions of social media accounts are happy to enjoy hate for profit.

It’s up to us, as voters, to pressure government for regulation and it’s up to us as consumers to adopt sustainable online tools.

Around a decade ago I paid $1 for an app so I could text anyone on whatever system, using whatever network, wherever in the world. It was a simple transaction: payment for service. People who bought it told their contacts to use it, and the app spread quickly. If 10 million people used it, it was worth $10 million to the developers.

By 2013 it had 200 million active users.

Facebook, who had developed a intra-network saw this and started salivating. They wanted access to everyone’s extra-network — information about all the people acting outside the Facebook infrastructure. Facebook spies on the apps you use on your mobile devices and the websites you visit on the desktop and it wants to look and see who you are talking to and texting. Three billion people have Facebook, but only a fraction of that number uses it for texting, group-chatting, videoing or voice calling.

Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014 for $19 billion and promised they would keep the information separate. But they lied. They boosted its usership to almost 2 billion and, just a few days ago, told users they had a stark choice — share all your information with Facebook (yes, this Facebook, yes, this Facebook, yes, this Facebook) or we’ll close your WhatsApp account. If they add the contacts of everyone in WhatsApp, they will have a flow of comprehensive personal data on nearly everyone in the world.

Remember, unlike Apple, Netflix and Amazon (which have your data but sell you goods and services), and unlike Wikipedia or the Internet Archive (which take little of your data are nonprofit trusts), for Google (including YouTube) and Facebook (including Instagram and WhatsApp) YOU are the product for sale to advertizers and propagandists. Using data about you, your friends, family and colleagues, Facebook will offer anyone the opportunity to change your mind — and the minds of your most vulnerable acquaintances — for money.

(Here’s where I think very briefly about how Facebook works and what next steps we can take).

Facebook is very difficult to leave because, professionally, there is no alternative to reach all those different audiences at that scale and personally it’s very convenient. But where there are other options I'm now taking them. I do use Twitter and Facebook -- those are the pipes we have and I'm actively trying to clean them of sewage. I’m trying to help expose and end the pay-to-pollute schemes that threaten our health and wellbeing so that we and our children will have clean information. In the meantime I'm using alternative pipes where I can, where the sewage polluters are not in charge.

WhatsApp is inconvenient to leave because so many people are on it now, but crucially, I have their contact information and can text them if necessary or just switch to Line or Telegram or, my choice, Signal. I like Signal because, though it was founded by a billionaire, it’s a project of a foundation — so not based on profit — based in a country with a rule of law.

The founders of WhatsApp joined Facebook when they were bought out, but both left as soon as they could because of severe disagreements. One of them, Brian Acton, set up Signal as a nonprofit trust along with encryption specialist Moxie Marlinspike and developed a very similar service. For users it’s very similar to WhatsApp with one to one messages, groups, video-chats and audio chats. But it’s like the Russia-based Telegram app in that it’s totally end-to-end encrypted — Edward Snowden uses Signal!

Signal was started by a billionaire, but is intended to be sustainable like Wikipedia, by having lots of open source components and by getting donations of money and code from people like us.

Mark Zuckerberg has chosen profit over connections, power over people and hate over truth. He’s been doing so for at least 7 years. Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica carelessness with our data probably caused Brexit and the Trump presidency, the cavalier lack of concern over his own community standards has definitely bred Neo-Nazism and is still complicit in the growing anti-vaxx movement that endangers all our health. Without Zuckerberg there would have been no violent coup attempt last week, and he’s apologized (but not made any reparations) for Facebook inciting the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar.

In the marketplace of ideas we can make a sustainable choice for a service that is designed to help us, not monetize us.

We have the opportunity to actively leave the platforms run by this grossly irresponsible billionaire. We have the opportunity to join a network owned in trust for the benefit of society. We should take it.

* Get the Signal app here for mobile or desktop 
* Set up groups exactly like WhatsApp and add members or just post links to the Signal groups in your old groups  

Group videos max out at 5, and group voice calls max out at 8 at the moment with Signal aiming to increase both limits.